Is reasoning done best in groups? Or: And we thought stereotype threat was bad.

This  idea that we reason better in groups has received recent attention because of the Argumentative Theory. Thus,

People mostly have a problem with the confirmation bias when they reason on their own, when no one is there to argue against their point of view. What has been observed is that often times, when people reason on their own, they’re unable to arrive at a good solution, at a good belief, or to make a good decision because they will only confirm their initial intuition.
On the other hand, when people are able to discuss their ideas with other people who disagree with them, then the confirmation biases of the different participants will balance each other out, and the group will be able to focus on the best solution. Thus, reasoning works much better in groups. When people reason on their own, it’s very likely that they are going to go down a wrong path. But when they’re actually able to reason together, they are much more likely to reach a correct solution.

The thought, which surely has some appeal, is that human reasoning has features that defeat one’s getting to a correct solution.  Confirmation bias is an example.  That is, we generally sort out evidence to find what shows we’ve been right.  Unfortunately, though, the idea that groups provide a solution may itself have a problem.

Recent work by Read Montague’s group suggests that in competitive groups, some people end up doing less well on cognitive tasks even when their IQ scores are the same as better functioning members.

Research led by scientists at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute found that small-group dynamics – such as jury deliberations, collective bargaining sessions, and cocktail parties – can alter the expression of IQ in some susceptible people. “You may joke about how committee meetings make you feel brain dead, but our findings suggest that they may make you act brain dead as well,” said Read Montague, director of the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory and Computational Psychiatry Unit at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, who led the study. .

“We started with individuals who were matched for their IQ,” said Montague. “Yet when we placed them in small groups, ranked their performance on cognitive tasks against their peers, and broadcast those rankings to them, we saw dramatic drops in the ability of some study subjects to solve problems. The social feedback had a significant effect.”

“Our study highlights the unexpected and dramatic consequences even subtle social signals in group settings may have on individual cognitive functioning,” said lead author Kenneth Kishida, a research scientist with the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. “And, through neuroimaging, we were able to document the very strong neural responses that those social cues can elicit.” …

There seem to have been at least two very different reactions on the part of the involved researchers.  One response is this:

We don’t know how much these effects are present in real-world settings,” Kishida said. “But given the potentially harmful effects of social-status assignments and the correlation with specific neural signals, future research should be devoted to what, exactly, society is selecting for in competitive learning and workplace environments. By placing an emphasis on competition, for example, are we missing a large segment of the talent pool? Further brain imaging research may also offer avenues for developing strategies for people who are susceptible to these kinds of social pressures.”

It looks to me as though Kishida thinks the experiments show us that competitive grouping may cost us in that we may lose a significant portion of the talented population.  But Quartz (see below) appears to be saying that who is in the talented population depends on who can perform well in the social situations.  Of course, I’m going here just by how he was quoted by a journalist, so we might be tentative about conclusions.

“This study tells us the idea that IQ is something we can reliably measure in isolation without considering how it interacts with social context is essentially flawed,” said coauthor Steven Quartz, a professor of philosophy in the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory of Caltech. “Furthermore, this suggests that the idea of a division between social and cognitive processing in the brain is really pretty artificial. The two deeply interact with each other.”

One remarkable aspect of the work is that it looks as though the number of women who are adversely affected is significantly higher than that of men.

In my experience, women often enough get the not so subtle look.  It used to be as bad as “O, isn’t it cute that you are trying to have some confused thought.” Now it is for me more likely to be “What idiot thing does this old woman have to say?”  Sometimes it can be quite explicit, as when a young man said after I delivered an invited talk, “I hope you don’t think your little point affects anything Block has to say.”  It has always interested me that these sorts of things can affect my performance.  Its as though one acts in accord with others expectations.  And I think there is some evidence that that is right, but the current research addresses a specific kind of setting very common at least in our version of academia.  The article indicated has a quite detailed picture of the mechanisms.  And I’m wondering whether a xanax or two might be helpful.  Perhaps in that five minute break between talk and questions, one could pop a pill, or have a very quick martini.  Any one want to write up a grant proposal on that?


Thanks to fp!

Mandatory philosophy classes in Brazilian schools

The official rationale for the 2008 law is that philosophy “is necessary for the exercise of citizenship.” The law—the world’s largest-scale attempt to bring philosophy into the public sphere—thus represents an experiment in democracy. Among teachers at least, many share Ribeiro’s hope that philosophy will provide a path to greater civic participation and equality. Can it do even more? Can it teach students to question and challenge the foundations of society itself?

Read more here. Via NewAPPS.

Where do you even begin?

Sometimes I’m just left speechless. Except for the expletives.

“The number of children who are born subsequent to a first abortion with handicaps has increased dramatically. Why? Because when you abort the first born of any, nature takes its vengeance on the subsequent children,” said Marshall, a Republican.

“In the Old Testament, the first born of every being, animal and man, was dedicated to the Lord. There’s a special punishment Christians would suggest.”

(Thanks, C and T. Sorry for delayed posting.)

And here’s the link.

Cynthia Nixon, on choosing to be gay

I gave a speech recently, an empowerment speech to a gay audience, and it included the line ‘I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay, and gay is better.’ And they tried to get me to change it, because they said it implies that homosexuality can be a choice. And for me, it is a choice. I understand that for many people it’s not, but for me it’s a choice, and you don’t get to define my gayness for me.

For more, go here.

Second trimester abortions and health care funding

There is a useful analysis of the relationship between second trimester abortions and health care funding over at the economics blog, Dollars and Sex.

From “The Economics of Second Trimester Abortions: Market Demand” by Marina Adshade: “Among women who both had second trimester abortions, and would have preferred to have one earlier in the pregnancy, 36% said the delay was caused by a need to raise the enough money to pay for the procedure. The U.S. isn’t the only nation that makes women pay for abortions, but it is the only one, that I know of, in which abortions for low-income women go unsubsidized by governments.”

Dollars and Sex, by the way, is an excellent resource for feminist philosophers. The blog covers economic aspects of dating and marriage, promiscuity, infidelity, risky sexual behavior, the relation between sex and happiness, and markets for sex such as prostitution, pornography, and lap dancing.

APA Prize

The American Philosophical Association has a number of prizes and awards including the Article Prize, details below:


Summary: The APA alternates giving an award to the best article and book published in the previous two years.

Process: Must be nominated by two APA members other than the author. Author must be a “younger scholar.” The winners will be selected by a committee appointed by the Chair of the Committee on Lectures, Publications, and Research, in consultation with LPR committee members.

Frequency: The Article Prize is awarded every other year in even years. Deadline for nominations is March 15, 2012.

Award Amount: $2,000 for the Article Prize

Submission Procedures

Nominations are opened every other spring for the Article Prize for that year (2012, 2014, 2016, etc.). Articles published in the prior two years are eligible. Thus, for 2012, the prize will be awarded to an article published in 2010 or 2011. (Eligibility is governed by the volume year of the journal, regardless of the date on which the issue containing the nominated article actually appeared in print.)

The prize is awarded for an article written by a “younger scholar.” A “younger scholar” means the author was 40 years of age or younger in the year of the volume in which the article appears, or the author received his or her Ph.D. 10 years or less before that year. The winner must be a member in good standing of the APA.

To be considered for the prize, an article must be nominated by two members of the APA other than the author. A member may nominate only one article. Nominations should identify the author, title, journal, volume number, year, and page numbers. The APA will contact nominated authors for assurances of eligibility and to secure copies of the nominated article. Nominations must be received by March 15, 2012 for the 2012 award.

Send nomination letters to:
Linda Nuoffer

The winner of the award will receive $2000 and be presented with the prize at the Eastern Division Meeting of the Association.